Ken Burns’ Documentary The Vietnam War:
Absolving War Crimes, Training People to Think Like Americans

October 23, 2017 | Revolution Newspaper |


The Vietnam War, a new documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, recently aired on public television (PBS). Burns is renowned for his thoughtful, exquisitely presented examinations of different periods and aspects of American history and culture: The Civil War, Jazz, and The Dust Bowl are among his many films. He has generally had a progressive outlook on these experiences. A new Ken Burns documentary is often a highly anticipated social and cultural event, and The Vietnam War is the most heavily promoted show in PBS history.

Narratives + Facts Do Not Equal Truth

PBS’s advertising hook for The Vietnam War was “No Single Truth.” Burns and Novick explained the method and purpose that guided their approach to the movie in a New York Times essay: “There is no simple or single truth to be extracted from the Vietnam War. Many questions remain unanswerable. But if, with open minds and open hearts, we can consider this complex event from many perspectives and recognize more than one truth, perhaps we can stop fighting over how the war should be remembered and focus instead on what it can teach us about courage, patriotism, resilience, forgiveness and, ultimately, reconciliation.”

Their method is to tell multiple stories, from multiple perspectives, and present them all as “truth.” Hundreds of people were interviewed for this movie, and about 80 of them appear in it. They include people who fought for Vietnam’s liberation from imperialism and U.S. citizens who opposed the war, as well as Americans who supported the war and Vietnamese allied with them. But even on its own terms, this movie is profoundly dishonest. There are no extended portrayals of the massive resistance to the war and the military within the U.S. military; no close up presentations of people who went from patriotic flag waver to critic of imperialism; no discussions with people—including many thousands within the U.S.—who celebrated the final U.S. retreat from Saigon.

But more to the point, a “narrative” (or 80 narratives) sprinkled with some facts does not add up to truth. As Bob Avakian wrote, “What people think is part of objective reality, but objective reality is not determined by what people think.” (BAsics 4:11)


Why did the U.S. invade a small, mainly peasant country half way around the world, and wage a ruthless war there for years? Why did so many people in Vietnam sacrifice so much, fight so long and so hard, first against the French and then the Americans? What larger social and historical dynamics are the foundation for the narratives in The Vietnam War? Ardea Skybreak describes how people with methods similar to Burns/Novick essentially argue “that there is no such thing as ‘objective’ truth because the fact that each person brings their own subjective interpretations to things makes it impossible to ever know anything other than through this distorted subjective lens.”

Truth Really Does Matter

The reality—the truth—is that the U.S. and, yes, every soldier who fought in this war, waged an unjust imperialist war against an oppressed people who fought back, against great odds. The Vietnamese heroically fought a just war of liberation against a superior power until they drove it out of their country. Their courage, resourcefulness, and determination inspired people worldwide, including within the U.S., to support them and to fight other injustices. U.S. soldiers who either participated in or abetted atrocities against the people of Vietnam (including by silent complicity) were war criminals. The political and military leaders of the U.S. who commanded and directed this war should have been brought before an International War Crimes Tribunal. The only U.S. military personnel—present and past—who should be honored are the resisters who “break ranks” and fight to end the criminal wars their government sends them to wage.

At the movie’s beginning, the narrator says the U.S. war in Vietnam was “begun in good faith by decent people out of fateful misunderstandings, American overconfidence and Cold War miscalculations.” This is not mere garden variety bullshit. It is shameful for Burns and Novick to echo such vicious deceit. It is a profoundly wrong and immoral viewpoint that permeates the entire 18-hour movie. Further, Burns knows, and in fact documents, how U.S. leaders lied for decades about essentially everything concerning its war in Vietnam. The Pentagon Papers, secret documents that were released in 1971 by Daniel Ellsberg, proved, as the New York Times wrote at the time, that the government systematically lied, not only to the public but also to Congress.” The government responded not by apologizing and trying to somehow atone for the fact that millions had by then died on the basis of their lies—but by arresting Ellsberg and charging him with espionage.

The U.S. was the world’s main imperialist superpower when it began its war in Vietnam. Throughout the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, struggles of national liberation raged in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Many of them were led by communists, or had strong communist participation. Political leaders of the U.S. were determined to crush these righteous struggles, in particular the struggle of the Vietnamese people, to ensure and extend U.S. global domination. The U.S. also aimed to encircle revolutionary China and strengthen its contention with the then-imperialist Soviet Union.

The war the United States waged against the people of Vietnam was an enormous crime against humanity. That can never be forgotten. More than three million Vietnamese people were killed during the years the U.S. rained death on Southeast Asia. Hundreds of thousands more died—were murdered—by the United States in the neighboring countries of Cambodia and Laos. (See sidebar.)

Burns and Novick do depict some of this. For people who never knew of the massive atrocities the U.S. routinely perpetrated in Vietnam, and the lies they used to justify them, some parts of this documentary will be eye-opening. But the movie covers over the truth about the nature of this genocidal war, entombing it in a cascade of conflicting “narratives,” and despite all the evidence, maintains that the American effort was waged “in good faith by decent people.”

When war crimes by the U.S. are depicted—broken bodies strewn across barren land, soldiers using cigarette lighters to set fire to people’s homes—Burns and Novick “balance” this with, for instance, a former U.S. officer or official claiming that killing civilians and destroying their homes was not U.S. policy. Systematic U.S. bombing and massive destruction of Hanoi and other population centers in North Vietnam is shown. But throughout the movie Burns and Novick present sympathetic accounts of bomber pilots whose planes were shot down and who became prisoners in North Vietnam.

One of the most odious expressions of this method, and where it leads, is their presentation of the My Lai massacre, a mass murder that outraged the entire conscious world. U.S. soldiers systematically slaughtered more than 500 Vietnamese civilians over three days. Burns and Novick described this unspeakable depravity as a “killing.” After months of debate among the filmmakers, they decided not to use the word “murder.” Burns and Novick claim killing civilians is the kind of thing which “happens in all wars.” This is not true: there have been revolutionary liberation forces like the People’s Army in China when it was under the leadership of Mao Zedong with policies and rules of engagement that strictly forbade the targeting or abuse of civilians in any way. But the U.S. military, in Vietnam and elsewhere, kills civilians routinely and massively. This is a core part of their way of fighting. Burns explained his cowardly, contemptible reasoning to the New Yorker: “My Lai continues to have ‘a toxic, radioactive effect’ on opinion in the U.S. ‘Killing’ was the better word, he said, ‘even though My Lai is murder.’”

As Bob Avakian has repeatedly stressed, truth really matters:

There is a place where epistemology and morality meet. There is a place where you have to stand and say: It is not acceptable to refuse to look at something—or to refuse to believe something—because it makes you uncomfortable. And: It is not acceptable to believe something just because it makes you feel comfortable. (BAsics 5:11)

If you look at the U.S. Civil War, the central truth of that war is that it was about slavery. We can know that, and know that those who fought in that war—whatever they thought they were doing—were either fighting for or against the enslavement of human beings. So too with Vietnam—the central truth is that the Vietnamese were fighting for self-determination and national liberation, and the U.S. was determined to conduct mass murder and ecocide to maintain neocolonial domination, whatever anybody thought they were doing.

Needed: More Divisiveness

There is a purpose to the method of Burns and Novick in their film. They want to reassure Americans that what their country did in Vietnam was a “tragedy”—for them as much as the Vietnamese. They wrap their package in a red white and blue shroud of “reconciliation.” By “reconciliation” they mean “honoring the warrior,” even though the “warrior” is a willing part of a machine that perpetrates mass atrocities across this entire planet.

Burns and Novick obliterate basic dividing lines between a people fighting for independence and liberation from imperialism and their oppressors. They see this as a way of “overcoming divisions” in the U.S. They end the movie with scenes of the Vietnam Memorial in D.C., where the names of the 58,000 Americans who died—not the three million and more Vietnamese—are inscribed, as the Beatle’s “Let It Be” plays.

Hell no.

The “divisiveness” of the 1960s and ’70s was the best thing that happened in this country in the 20th century. People rose up in protest and rebellion, including in ghettos and barrios across the country. Youth identified with and carried the flag of an “enemy” liberation force with whom the U.S. was at war. Millions of people would not accept and live with the status quo, and “go along to get along.” Millions of people danced to the beat that “the revolution’s here, and you know it’s right,” as a pop song from the era went.

Far from being something to mourn, regret, and try to reconcile, the profound divisions that erupted and clashed in this country over the U.S. war in Vietnam and genocide of the Vietnamese people were a good thing. It was a positive development that radical and revolutionary currents emerged as mass expressions of opposition to the war. It was inspiring that the whole world saw a section of youth in this country who burned draft cards and burned the U.S. flag. Protesters were courageous and had truth and morality on their side when they passionately chanted against their president: “Hey, Hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today.”

People who took over college campuses, flooded streets from DC to San Francisco, protested in the face of brutal suppression in cities coast to coast were proceeding from the interests of humanity, they weren’t thinking like Americans.

A lot more of that kind of divisiveness is needed today. The U.S. is waging war in countries across the world. The U.S. military has military bases that span the globe, “special ops” assassination teams, drones that drop death on remote villages, nuclear armed vessels or planes on, above, and below the world’s oceans. And now, a fascist president threatening still more unjust violence on a more massive level, up to the actual use of nuclear weapons.

People really need to ponder and come to grips with something else Bob Avakian wrote:

While it is right and necessary to unite with people broadly in opposing the injustices and outrages committed by those who rule this country, and while this has taken on heightened importance with the coming to power of the Trump/Pence fascist regime, it is a basic truth that without breaking with American chauvinism—without confronting the very real horror of what this country has been, and what it has done, here and all over the world, from its founding to the present—and without coming to deeply hate this, it is not possible, in the final analysis, to retain one’s own humanity and act in the highest interests of all humanity. (From “The Problem, the Solution, and the Challenges Before Us”)

As in the ’60s, a basic question remains: Which side are you on?



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